Propane Stored In Rail Cars In Bennington Neighborhood Has Residents On Edge
Vermont Rail System is storing tanker cars filled with propane near a residential neighborhood in Bennington, and some of the people who live nearby are wondering what they can do to ensure their safety.
A couple of winters ago a series of intense storms put a squeeze on the country's supply of propane fuel.
So energy companies have been looking for solutions, and storing liquefied propane in rail cars is one way to make sure dealers get the fuel they need when the temperature plummets.
But the train tracks where the propane is being stored in southwestern Vermont run right by Barry Linendoll's house,
He can see the long line of black tanker cars from his back lawn, and he says when the sun comes up after a cold night he can hear the cars ping and pop.
He understands that's probably part of some venting system, but it's been unsettling.
"If one of those ignite, I think North Bennington's going to be gone," Linendoll says. "I mean, I'd never feel it, but it would be bad."
Linendoll lives in a pretty typical rural Vermont neighborhood. Modest homes and trailers are strung out along the railroad tracks, and if a gas company wanted to build a storage facility here they couldn't because it's zoned for housing.
America's rail system is regulated by federal rules, so the train company doesn't have to follow local or state zoning or health and safety codes.
Vermont Rail System Vice President Seldon Houghton says the people in Linendoll's neighborhood will just have to live with it for now.
"Obviously the railroad tracks are where they are," he says. "We use all the available track space we have. Some are more preferential than others, but you get to the point where there's only so many tracks and you have to use them."
Houghton says the liquid gas storage in Bennington meets and exceeds all federal safety standards.
"If one of those ignite, I think North Bennington's going to be gone. I mean, I'd never feel it, but it would be bad." - Barry Linendoll, Bennington resident
He can't reveal who owns the fuel.
The customer bought the fuel in anticipation of the upcoming winter, and he says the backed up propane will be transported out as the market demands.
"We're just the carrier and we have our federal obligations to move commodities," Houghton says. "We actually can't refuse to move any commodity. In the rail industry we call these cars 'constructively placed.' They're waiting to be unloaded at the final destination."
But Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, doesn't see it that way.
"What they're doing right here is they're storing fuel," he says. "They're getting away from having to construct something that might cost, perhaps, millions of dollars. And which would have to go through all sorts of permitting and environmental regulations. Instead of doing that, all they're doing is they're just driving the fuel here and parking it."
The state of Vermont requires the rail company to file its information with the Department of Public Safety, but there are no requirements to contact local officials.
The Bennington town manager and selectboard only found out about the tankers after local residents raised their concern.
Campion says he wants to introduce legislation that will require the train company to provide more information when hazardous materials are being stored for a period of time.
"If some notification is happening then a step is missing," he says. "The people who might need to be involved if there were an accident should at least be notified that it is here."
Al Bashevkin lives in this neighborhood and he's been one of the more outspoken critics of the gas storage.
This is the same part of town where about 270 private wells are contaminated with PFOA, an industrial chemical that was released from a nearby factory.
Bashevkin says back when the Chemfab plant used PFOA, and released it into the environment, the people of Bennington counted on the federal government to protect them.
That didn't happen.
And so when the train company says it's safe to store thousands of gallons of propane in unprotected rail cars near homes, the folks around here get a little edgy.
"You know we understand industry, and what can happen when industry doesn't get watched by government," Bashevkin says. " So, I'm sure the people that were affected by PFOA wish, that 20-30 years ago that they had the capacity to address what was going on there."
The train company says the tankers are starting to move, and as the weather gets colder more of the propane will be sold into the market.